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Senate bill would press colleges to address sex assaults

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Capitol Hill in Washington,

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Charles Dharapak

WASHINGTON -- A Senate bill unveiled Wednesday would set out new requirements for addressing campus sexual assaults that could cost colleges 1 percent of their operating budgets if they don't comply.

The bill aims to make it easier for student victims to get treatment and file complaints, while standardizing college training and disciplinary processes and requiring annual online campus surveys to assess the scope of the problem.

A bipartisan group of eight senators, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), introduced the bill at a Capitol Hill news event.

"Under the current system, colleges lack incentives to investigate or properly handle violent sexual crimes that occur on their campuses," Gillibrand said. "With this bill we are flipping the incentives."

Now, many colleges play down their number of sexual assaults to avoid hurting student recruitment, she said. But the bill would fine schools that underreport or fail to meet its other requirements.

The bill faces a tough road amid a crowded election-year agenda in Congress, but Gillibrand said she hopes bipartisan backing will help. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) said she'll sponsor the bill in the House.

The legislation follows increased pressure from the White House, U.S. Department of Education and student activists for colleges to respond better to rape and sexual assaults.

Annie Clark, an advocate with the group End Rape on Campus, said, "We're not going to legislate away sexual assault, but we can make it better for the survivors coming forward."

To encourage that, the bill requires colleges to have confidential advisers and to coordinate with law enforcement officials.

For transparency, it requires publication of each school's annual sexual-violence survey.

To make fines possible, it allows the Education Department to levy up to 1 percent of a school's operating budget instead of stripping all of a school's federal financial aid, which is the current and unused step.

The American Council on Education, the lobbyist for colleges, said the bill takes a heavy-handed approach and potentially adds more intervention to already confusing and overlapping federal laws, AP reported.

But it won backing from Smita Majumdar Das, assistant director of the Center for Prevention and Outreach Counseling and Psychological Services at Stony Brook University.

"It would not really change much that we already have been doing," she said. "But we would do it better."

The bill would require Stony Brook to conduct its first survey of campus sexual assaults, she said. Federal records show Stony Brook reported 17 forcible sex offenses in 2012 among its 25,000 students.

"Underreporting is definitely an issue. But it's important to remember it's the victim's choice whether they want to report or not," she said. "They do get care on campus, but it might not be reflected on the report."


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